They shrug off power vacuum, dissension
Skinheads, neo-Nazis, white separatists and other extremist right-wing groups are stepping up grass-roots organizing from the rural West to suburban New Jersey, say experts who track them.
Radical right-wing activity slowed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as internal disagreements erupted over the merits of the attacks and leaders of several organizations died or went to jail, authorities said. But the groups are becoming more active, distributing leaflets in neighborhoods, holding public rallies, starting Web sites and reaching out to like-minded activists overseas.
“We have to understand that these groups are not passé and are starting to re-emerge,” David Carter, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, told law enforcement officials at a recent Justice Department conference in Washington.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama civil rights watchdog that monitors the groups, counted 751 active hate-related chapters in the U.S. in 2003, up from 708 the year before. The number of hate-related Web sites rose from 443 in 2002 to 497 last year, the center said in a report.
Don Black, a former Alabama Ku Klux Klan leader, said white separatists are seeing more Internet activity turn into “real-world activism.”
“The criticism we’ve always heard is that people don’t do anything but sit behind their computer and post on message boards,” said Black, who runs a string of Web sites called Stormfront out of his West Palm Beach, Fla., home. “We’re actually turning people out to meetings and getting people involved in activism.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center said that the Klan has built up membership in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, and that racist skinheads have been active in New Jersey, where one-third of the nation’s 39 active skinhead chapters are located. It also said the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, based in northern Idaho, showed a “surprising resurgence,” doubling from 11 to 22 chapters in 2003.
Michigan State’s Carter, who works with the Justice Department and the FBI to train local police on extremist groups on both the far right and far left, said he also has seen interest rising among far-right activists in Washington state, Tennessee and Mississippi.
The groups are motivated by long-held grievances, including racial and ethnic diversification and Israel’s influence on U.S. policy. Some are angry at President Bush for sending troops overseas.
“They see Bush as a traitor for sending working-class Americans to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Chip Berlet, senior policy analyst for Political Research Associates, a Somerville, Mass., organization that studies authoritarian movements.
The activity has come despite the loss of several of the movements’ most visible figures:
— Former Klan leader David Duke, who drew national attention in his unsuccessful bid for Louisiana governor in 1991, was released in May after a year in prison for tax and mail fraud. Experts are interested in seeing how active Duke becomes.
“He’s the only guy out there with the same stature as William Pierce,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
For now, one figure trying to take a prominent role is Billy Roper of Arkansas, a former National Alliance official who in September 2002 founded the separatist group White Revolution. Roper said he wants to build a broad coalition among fractious Klan, skinhead and other groups.
“The most difficult thing of all, more so than the bad blood between organizations, is getting people to focus on the big picture,” Roper said in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t matter to me whether White Revolution still exists 100 years from now. It matters to me that the white race exists 100 years from now. There are some people who are more concerned about what kind of uniform they’re going to wear.”
Roper’s group, which he said has “about 100 hard-core activist members” and 10,000 supporters, is using the Internet to spread its message. Its site contains videos, downloadable fliers, “racialist fiction” and reports of events.
Roper said he plans to speak at Klan rallies and other public events in Kentucky, Alabama and Michigan. He is also talking with separatist groups in Europe in advance of next month’s Olympic Games, which he opposes because they bring together athletes of different races.
Some communities are seeking to counter such efforts.
After finding recruiting fliers from White Revolution on his lawn in May, Lester Gesteland of Metuchen, N.J., posted notices in bookstores and cafes asking people to report such activities to police. He hasn’t seen any White Revolution fliers since.
“I was very upset when I saw those, it was such a shock to me,” said Gesteland, 38, who is white and married to a Japanese woman. “Maybe our street was targeted because we have more and more nonwhites moving in. There’s a mixed couple, a black family, Jewish people, Chinese, Japanese. Which is why we moved here, because we loved it.”
Others have tried to blunt the reach of far-right events in their communities. The neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement has planned a July 17 “Public/White Unity Rally” in Lincoln, Neb., at the state Capitol, leading local residents to sponsor a “No Place for Hate” gathering at a nearby park.
“We thought, let’s do something to engage kids as opposed to having them be curious about” the organization’s rally, said organizer Susan Scott, executive director of the Lincoln YWCA. “I just got my first piece of hate mail. I was pretty proud of that.”
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